Ingrown toenails are a common condition in which the corner or side of a toenail grows into the soft flesh. The result is pain, redness, swelling and, sometimes, an infection. Ingrown toenails usually affect your big toe.
Often you can take care of ingrown toenails on your own. If the pain is severe or spreading, your doctor can take steps to relieve your discomfort and help you avoid complications of ingrown toenails.
If you have diabetes or another condition that causes poor blood flow to your feet, you're at greater risk of complications of ingrown toenails.
Ingrown toenail symptoms include:
- Pain and tenderness in your toe along one or both sides of the nail
- Redness around your toenail
- Swelling of your toe around the nail
- Infection of the tissue around your toenail
Pain will be the first sign of an ingrown toenail, followed by irritation, redness and swelling of the surrounding skin. Eventually, you may notice yellow to green pus in the area or on your sock. If this occurs, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. Especially if you have diabetes or other medical conditions more susceptible to infection.
Common ingrown toenail causes include:
- Wearing shoes that crowd your toenails
- Cutting your toenails too short or not straight across
- Injuring your toenail
- Having unusually curved toenails
Ingrown toenails develop for many reasons. In some cases the condition is congenital, such as toenails that simply are too large. People whose toes curl, either congenitally or from diseases like arthritis, are prone to ingrown toenails. Often trauma, like stubbing a toe or having a toe stepped on, can cause a piece of the nail to be jammed into the skin. Repeated trauma, such as the pounding to which runners typically subject their feet, also can cause ingrown nails.
Left untreated or undetected, an ingrown toenail can infect the underlying bone and lead to a serious bone infection.
Complications can be especially severe if you have diabetes, which can cause poor blood flow and damage nerves in your feet. So a minor foot injury — a cut, scrape, corn, callus or ingrown toenail — may not heal properly and become infected. A difficult-to-heal open sore (foot ulcer) may require surgery to prevent the decay and death of tissue (gangrene). Gangrene results from an interruption in blood flow to an area of your body.
To help prevent an ingrown toenail:
- Trim your toenails straight across. Don't curve your nails to match the shape of the front of your toe. If you have your toenails done at a salon, be sure to tell your pedicurist to trim your nails straight across. If you have a condition that causes poor blood flow to your feet and you can't trim your nails, see a podiatrist regularly to have your nails trimmed.
- Keep toenails at a moderate length. Trim toenails so they're even with the tips of your toes. If you trim your toenails too short, the pressure from your shoes on your toes may direct a nail to grow into the tissue.
- Wear shoes that fit properly. Shoes that place too much pressure on your toes or pinch them may cause a nail to grow into surrounding tissue. If you have nerve damage to your feet, you may not be able to sense if your shoes fit too tightly. Take care to buy and wear properly fitted shoes, preferably from a shoe store specializing in fitting shoes for people with foot problems.
- Wear protective footwear. If your work puts you at risk of injuring your toes, wear protective footwear, such as steel-toed shoes.
- Check your feet. If you have diabetes, check your feet daily for signs of ingrown toenails or other foot problems.
Ingrown toenails should be treated as soon as they are recognized. In many cases, people with uninfected ingrown toenails can obtain relief with the following simple regimen:
- Soak the feet in warm salt water
- Dry them thoroughly with a clean towel
- Apply a mild antiseptic solution to the area
- Bandage the toe
Properly fitting shoes, possibly with an insert to alter how you push off when walking, may also reduce the chances of this deformity.
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